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Dear lady adjuncts: You work for peanuts because women are willing to work for peanuts

December 9, 2013

Kate Bahn, a Ph.D. candidate at the New School, bemoans the fact that women make up a “disproportionate” percentage of adjunct professors–people with doctorates teaching college courses for $1,000 to $3,000 a pop, with no benefits and no chance of getting onto the tenure track and collecting a decent salary:

It’s no secret that adjuncts are paid measly wages, and that lifelong adjuncting is a sentence for poor economic well-being, rather than an entrée into the allegedly “cushy” life of the tenured professor. But most of the media attention on adjuncts has failed to highlight an important feature of this labor force: A disproportionate number of its members are women.

The proportion of women earning Ph.D.’s in the United States has steadily increased over the last three decades as more women have pursued advanced degrees. According to a recent National Science Foundation report on U.S. doctoral recipients, women obtained only 32 percent of all earned doctorates in 1981, but by 2011, that number had climbed to 46 percent. That’s good news! But it also means that fewer than 46 percent of all Ph.D. holders are women.

And yet more than half of all adjuncts are women—51 percent, according to a 2009 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. A 2012 survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce puts the number of female adjuncts even higher, at nearly 62 percent. While women are indeed earning more Ph.D.’s, they’re greatly overrepresented among adjuncts.

OK–so now what? Oh, right, blame “gender stereotyping!”

Sociologist Marcia Bellas, for example, has found that much more emotional labor (the work of caring or acting like you care) is expected of female professors than their male peers. Likewise, students often hold female professors to a higher standard: Women who seem unfriendly, unapproachable, or disengaged from advising face more criticism than men. Bellas reminds us that the “gendered reward structure” in the labor market as a whole replicates itself in academia.

Ultimately this means that female academics may exhibit behavior that garners them higher student ratings and makes them better teachers, even if it doesn’t win them a tenure-track spot. It is hard to fight the expectations others place on you. And it doesn’t help that the skills associated with tenure—research and publishing—tend to be coded as masculine. Teaching and service work, two valuable contributions to the academy that hold less sway in tenure hearings, are often viewed as relatively “feminine” tasks.

These are broad generalizations, to be sure, but sadly there’s more than a hint of truth in all this. So what’s going on here? Why does a field that is supposedly based on intellectual rigor and merit succumb to plain old sex discrimination and gender stereotyping?

I have a better explanation: No one is forced at gunpoint to be an adjunct professor. Colleges get away with paying highly trained people $3,000 a course (which annualizes, if they’re very lucky and very overworked, to $24,000 a year) because they can. Period. Graduate programs, especially in the humanities, are turning out at least twice as many Ph.D.s as there are ever job openings on the tenure track. Most of those Ph.D.-holders who can’t get tenure-track jobs–which is to say at least half of every cohort–want to teach college anyway. They love to teach;, they’re dreamers who think that maybe, just maybe a tenure-track job will open up for them someday; they say that teaching college is what they’re “trained to do,” so they’re gonna teach college, whatever the price they have to pay. And there are scads and scads of them beating down the doors of universities begging to get in front of classrooms. Not surprisingly, administrators pay them according to their market value, which is a dime a dozen. Yes, they have special skills and talents, but so do calligraphers. There’s not much of a market for calligraphers, either.

Not surprisingly, a lot of those people are women. They have families and breadwinner husbands, so they’d rather work part time. Or they have day jobs but like to teach anyway. Or they’re retired. Or they’re romantic types who would rather starve in poetic garrets than sully their hands working as office admins–or retaining themselves for a career that actually pays. Whatever. But the fact remains–and it’s well-documented–that women tend to be more willing than men to work for cheap. And adjuncting is nothing if not a cheap-paying job.
Here’s what to do, ladies in grad school who would like to eat something better than beans out of can: Don’t be an adjunct professor. Just don’t. I have a Ph.D., and I could walk into any university near my home and get a teaching job: teaching freshman composition and grading 30 papers a week for $2,000 a pop. No thanks. I’m already working in a career that I love that doesn’t pay a whole lot: writing.
Posted by Charlotte Allen

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